‘I was naive about Paralympic sport – I thought it was easy’
Athletes across the globe dream of one day having the opportunity to showcase their talents to the world whilst wearing their nation colours, but for table tennis player Aaron McKibbin, that dream has already become a reality – twice.
At the London 2012 Paralympics, McKibbin fulfilled that ambition, but his adventure had the happiest of endings as together with GB team-mates Ross Wilson and Will Bayley, he clinched a bronze medal in the men’s team class 6-8 competition (moderate to severe limb impairment).
“It was a bit crazy, we didn’t expect it [to take a medal home],” he explains.
“We went in pretty blind; we were young. And being a home games, which was an amazing experience, we didn’t really know what was going on. It felt like a dream!”
Fast forward four years to the Rio 2016 Paralympics, and the 25-year-old was part of the team that repeated that medal-winning feat, but he admits to a feeling of disappointment at only managing to finish third again.
“We were so close to beating Ukraine in the doubles, and if we’d done that, we were most likely going to win the match and play Sweden in the final for gold,” explains McKibbin.
“On the other hand, to take a bronze there meant so much more than in London. The teams we beat along the way were so strong, and we saw our draw and knew it was going to be a tough ask.
“We beat Belgium, the former world champions in the first round. Then we beat Spain, the London 2012 silver medallists in the quarter-final, and then lost to the gold medallists in the semi-final.
“Finally, we had to beat China, the current world champions, who had the Rio 2016 gold medallist in their team.”
After two consecutive bronze medals, looking forward to the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, McKibbin has his eyes on an upgrade.
“I’m very determined [to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics],” McKibbin emphasises.
“I reached the quarter-final of singles in Rio, and my aim is to be competing for a singles medal at Tokyo 2020.”
Should McKibbin qualify for Tokyo 2020, it would be his third Paralympic Games – something he admits he never thought possible.
“My aim of going to London was simply because I had a dream of playing on the world stage and at a home games,” says the Londoner. “I didn’t even know about Brazil until after London 2012!”
European Championships and PTT Open
Whilst Rio and London are McKibbin’s biggest successes so far, they are not the only ones – he has also won medals at the 2015 European Para Table Tennis Championships and China PTT Open.
“They can’t compare to a Paralympics or World Championships. They are the most special competitions you can play in.”
“To win medals at any competition isn’t easy; the standard is getting harder and harder,” McKibbin says.
“Winning the China Open was possibly my most pleasing result outside of the Paralympics. I beat the world number two from China in the final and I had to win the competition to seal my qualification for Rio.”
While McKibbin clearly enjoyed those other triumphs, he admits neither comes close to the experience of Paralympic success.
“They can’t compare – things like the Paralympics or world championships are the most special competitions you can play in.”
Winning medals playing table tennis was not always McKibbin’s goal, however.
As a youngster, he dreamed of success on the tennis court, until he was forced to quit at the age of 14 because of his bilateral talipes – the medical condition more commonly known as club foot.
“It was was pretty hard, I couldn’t achieve what I wanted,” he admits.
“I was very naive to Paralympic sport – I thought it was easy and not serious”
“I fell out of love with the sport as no matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t able to compete with the people I used to beat. My dream as a child was to play at Wimbledon so, once I knew that wasn’t a reality, then it [the decision to quit tennis] was sort of made for me.”
It was not until his first international table tennis tournament in Romania that his ambitions to compete at the highest level were reignited.
“I wasn’t really expecting much. I went because I was offered and thought it would be a cool experience,” he says.
“I was very naive about Paralympic sport; I thought it was easy and not serious. But once I arrived and saw how high the level was, how professional it was, I made my decision [aiming to compete at London 2012].”
McKibbin eventually moved up to the National Table Tennis Centre in Sheffield to train full-time in a bid to make his Paralympic dream come true, and he admits the step into the unknown was a tough experience.
“At first I didn’t [find it difficult to leave London for Sheffield], I just made the decision. I needed to go and that’s it.
“But then I think after a while I did. I had never left home before, and I was suddenly living 170 miles away from my family, looking after myself, while not knowing everyone that well being so new to the team.”
Several successful years later, McKibbin faces new challenges, such as balancing his time between playing table tennis and studying for a part-time Sports Science degree at Loughborough University.
“It’s hard as I have to drive to Loughborough two times a week, so it’s a lot of driving. But it’s something I must do as I know I a need a degree for my future,” he explained.
“The key is being organised. I have my year planned out; I’m in good contact with my tutors and lecturers. I’ve started back full-time training now, and it is hard after a long day of lots of physical work to come home and focus on learning.
“But I will find a way. I’m not the first to do it and sure won’t be the last.”
At 25, and with several international honours to his name, McKibbin is in a good position to give advice to the next generation of future Paralympians – and his key message is the importance of a strong work ethic and mental resilience.
“It will take a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice but, if you have a dream, you should go for it and never let anyone tell you otherwise,” he explained.
“There will be lots of ups and downs, but it’s the down periods that make you learn the most about yourself. Enjoy the lows because they make the success taste that much sweeter!”